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Solar-powered Airplane Making a Transcontinental Journey
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June 04, 2013

Solar-powered Airplane Making a Transcontinental Journey

By Drew Hendricks

Airplanes are notorious for leaving enormous carbon footprints, right?


There is now an exception to that rule, and its name is Solar Impulse. It's a solar-powered airplane that can fly without a drop of fuel. And, in spite of the adjective "solar-powered," it doesn't require sunlight at all times; it can even fly at night.

The plane shows significant promise for clean energy proponents. Back in 2012, it was flown from Switzerland to Morocco. Eventually, the plane's creators plan to circumnavigate the globe with it. But that will have to wait until it finishes its flight across the United States, which began on May 3. For some reason, that flight did not originate in Kitty Hawk, N.C.

Solar Impulse started its transcontinental journey in San Francisco, setting course for Sky Harbor airport in Phoenix, Ariz. From there, it will travel to Dallas, Texas, sometime soon. At the end of this month, the plane will travel to St. Louis, Mo. Then it will travel to the nation's capitol, and finally to New York City.

So why doesn't a plane described as "solar-powered" need perpetual sunlight for power? It has lithium polymer batteries housed in nacelles under its wings. The actual solar-powered cells (photovoltaic cells, for geek-speakers) are situated on top of the wings.

These cells absorb the sunlight, and convert that energy into electricity. This electricity is used to propel the plane and charge the batteries. When the light isn't present, the energy from the batteries can still propel the plane. Lithium polymer batteries are also rechargeable, so once the energy in the batteries is spent, they can be recharged again via the solar-powered cells. The plane generates about as much energy as a scooter.

How fast does the plane travel? About 45 miles per hour, according to the founders. That's not nearly as fast as commercial airliners, but it's still in early stages of development.

As far as the physical description of the plane itself, it weighs about the same as a station wagon. It has a wingspan roughly equivalent to a 747, but space is tight. The cockpit, at this time, fits only one, and is about the size of a typical storage or moving container.

The whole point of this exercise, of course, is to demonstrate the viability of clean energies. The idea that transcontinental flight can be accomplished with nothing more than solar-powered cells and lithium polymer batteries is a testament to the fact that people are still actively searching for green energy, as opposed to fossil fuels, to power various methods of transportation.

The coast-to-coast flight of Solar Impulse will also launch an environmental initiative called "The Clean Generation." The mission of this program is to "encourage governments, businesses and decision-makers to push for the adoption of clean technologies and sustainable energy solutions." It enjoys the support of high-profile names such as Buzz Aldrin, Al Gore, Richard Branson and James Cameron.

Co-founder Bertrand Piccard enjoys a family history not unfamiliar with innovation. His grandfather, who was also a friend of Madame Curie and Albert Einstein, invented a capsule so that he and his partner could be the first to reach the stratosphere in a balloon. His father invented the submarine that was the first to make an underwater trip to the earth's crust. Piccard himself was part of a team that was the first to circumnavigate the globe in a balloon.

Piccard's partner, André Borschberg, is responsible for the design and construction of Solar Impulse. He took the $140 million raised by Piccard and turned it into a solar-powered phenomenon.

It's a foregone conclusion the environmental activists everywhere will be watching the cross-country flight of Solar Impulse with keen interest. The voyage, and its upcoming around-the-world trip, should boost the arguments from green energy evangelists that alternative energy is a viable solution.

Edited by Alisen Downey

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